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All The Rage: the unknown risks of steroid use

A cocktail of societal pressures, poor education, and widespread availability have resulted in a massive increase in steroid use across the UK. Is there anything we can do to kick the habit?

“The whole ‘roid rage’ thing? Load of bollocks.”

 

If anybody knows that, it’s Dave Crosland. As I talk on the phone to him, I put his name into a search engine for what must be the hundredth time this afternoon. I simply can’t comprehend the size of the man. Standing at 6’2 and weighing 28st, his entire frame is covered in gargantuan slabs of muscle that look like they could break the bonds of his skin at any moment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s known within the bodybuilding community as ‘The Freak’. Even on the phone, he sounds big.

 

Throughout the past year, there have been a number of media stories that indicate that steroid use is on the rise, warning of the dire consequences that could befall both the NHS and users themselves. Now normally, it’d be easy to dismiss this sort of reporting as nothing more than a good old-fashioned moral panic, another boogieman fabricated by the yellow press in a desperate attempt to get a few extra copies moved off the shelf. But the trend is something I’ve noticed myself. Former school friends – who I haven’t seen in years – will upload pictures to their social media accounts of their chiselled pumped-up bodies, a far cry from the doughy, pasty physiques I remember. Of course, it would be deeply unfair to accuse every single person who’s transformed their body of having used steroids to do so. But conversely, it’d be naïve to suggest that your mate Leon’s new acne is just a by-product of his ultra high-protein diet. Steroids aren’t being used by everyone, and it’d be irresponsible to suggest that users are anything but a minority. But it’s time to acknowledge that the problem exists, and it’s not going away.

 

This is why I’ve sought out Dave, to find out what’s behind the boom. . As a man who’s taken steroids on and off for over 20 years, he’s seen the changes to how steroids are made and sold, as well as the change in the types of people who are taking them. After all, steroids have been around for years, but until recently, they’ve pretty much been the preserve of bodybuilders. Now, they’re used by men of various ages, shapes and sizes, from snapback-wearing, fake-tanning, chest-waxing überLADs, to middle-aged men hoping to recapture some of the masculinity they feel has been lost to age. Dave’s also spoken before to a variety of publications – VICE, The Guardian, and The Independent to name but a few – about both his own experiences on steroids, and has called on numerous occasions for greater awareness and education about their effects. A week after our conversation, he appears on Reggie Yates’ BBC Three show Dying For a Six Pack, and says a lot of the same things to Reggie on camera as he did to me on the phone. Only this time, he makes the same salient points with blood pouring out of his head; his blood pressure is so high that an extremely intense set on the leg press has caused one of his veins to literally burst. He seems like a good starting point.

 

***

 

We begin talking about how one goes about obtaining steroids, and it’s clear from the outset that the Internet has made that aspect easier than ever before. “Type ‘steroids for sale’ into Google and see how many hits you get,” he asks. I feel his request is more imperative than rhetorical, so I oblige. Immediately I’m bombarded by a multitude of sites claiming that their EXTREME GEAR!!! will make me BIGGER!!! and it’s all 100% LEGAL!!! I’m somewhat doubtful, and Dave says I should be.

 

“This is a conservative guess, but I’d say 50% of the steroids sold in this country today aren’t what they say they are,” he claims, although he clarifies that this doesn’t necessarily mean everyone who purchases steroids online is being sold sherbet. He elaborates, “You might go and buy testosterone decanoate, which is a slow-acting testosterone, but what you might end up being sold is testosterone propionate, which is a fast-acting testosterone, and a lot cheaper to manufacture. The amateur will still feel something, and not realise they’ve got the wrong thing.”

 

Surely then, it’d be reasonable to assume that the lack of quality control and regulation would have a negative impact on the health of users? But according to Dave, the implications in this regard aren’t that big. “You very rarely get bad gear on the marketplace,” he says, “And if you do, it’s very quickly found out by the user population, and very quickly shunned,” he says. However, it’s well documented that even ‘pure’ steroids can present serious health issues. Dave details his own problems with headaches, as well as stomach and liver issues, and bouts of acne. He neglects to mention his occasionally bleeding head. Perhaps it’s such a regular occurrence, he no longer considers it a problem.

 

Other users have experienced more severe side effects. Author Craig Davidson underwent a 16-week cycle as part of the research for his book, The Fighter. He endured, among other things, cranial swelling, testicular atrophy, as well as gynomastia – the growing of breast tissue due to the build-up of oestrogen in the body, known to bodybuilders and Fight Club fans as ‘bitch-tits’. But when I caught up with him, he told me that the worst side effect of all was the swelling of his prostate, which meant that he was awake up to 15 times a night trying to urinate. He said, “It never felt like my bladder was empty. I was in my early 30’s, too young to have those kinds of issues. And they’re issues that persist, on and off, to this day – and ones that I imagine I’ll be dealing with the rest of my life.”

 

Tragically, there are also rare instances where users have died. Steroids have a low mortality rate compared to other drugs, but often this makes the few deaths that do occur even more harrowing, usually due to the young age of the victims as well as the severity of their symptoms. One example that received particularly heavy media attention was the death of Oli Cooney, from Bradford, who died in 2013. It was reported that as a result of his steroid habit, he suffered a heart attack and three strokes, before finally succumbing to a second heart attack. He was just 20 years old.

 

***

 

So why is steroid use so prevalent nowadays, even when the risks are clear to see? “It’s a combination of several factors,” says Crosland. “There’s more social pressure on young men than there’s ever been… it’s not just pressure from their peer groups, but pressure from the media as well. We’re given a very false ideal by the media, and by advertising. A lot of the physiques you see have been built with drugs, but that’s never admitted. You couple that with a society that’s inherently lazy, a society where there’s a pill for every ill, a society that wants instant gratification… when all these things come together and you have the mass availability of drugs, you get people that get frustrated and say, “Fuck it, I want to look like this, I’m gonna take these.”

 

Dave’s assessment of our society seems like a bit of a sweeping generalisation, but when it comes to the different pressures facing young men today, I only have to look as far as myself to see that he’s absolutely right. I go to the gym four times a week, along with the majority of my friends. Our aims differ, to an extent. A few of us go to counteract our disgracefully unhealthy student lifestyles, reasoning that being able to bench 120kg will somehow make it acceptable to two whole pizzas for dinner, so long as we say we’re bulking. Others take it considerably more seriously. But in one goal we’re united: we want to look good, and looking good means being big. None of us have taken steroids, but we’ve all consumed more than our fair share of protein shakes, creatine pills, and a wide variety of other commonly used supplements. It’s not exactly hard to see other young men like us looking for something to take their training to another level, other young men who are willing to accept the risks that come with taking a substance made in a laboratory, rather than one made in your own body.

 

And this is perhaps the most obvious explanation why steroids are so popular. No matter how much harm is that for all the harm that steroids can do to the human body, people are taking them because they work. Davidson explains, “I’d plateaued. My body was what it was, did what it did. It had limits. Well, ‘roids pushed those limits, blew them away. It was mesmerizing and addicting, that feeling. It’s strange at any age to feel like some of the things that limited you don’t anymore. Like taking a pill that increases your IQ by 30 points. It’s all chemical nonsense, it’s not really YOU, but that’s immaterial at some point. It feels enough like truth that you accept it as such.”

 

It’s important to note that some men aren’t just after aesthetics when they take steroids. More and more amateur sportsmen are turning to drugs, mostly those playing contact sports where strength and power are prized assets. This might seem a little extreme, considering at amateur level there’s little more at stake than pride, but this practice is reflective of how far steroid culture has come into the mainstream. Chris*, a student who has played rugby and American football, spoke to me about his decision to undertake a pro-hormone cycle in order to increase his performance. He explained that while pro-hormones don’t work in the same way as traditional anabolic steroids, they are synthetic substances that raise precursors to testosterone, which subsequently raise the level of testosterone within the body. Because of this, both the bodybuilding community and the media have labelled them “designer steroids.” Part of Chris’s decision to start using was that his sporting commitments were holding back his progress in the gym. “I’ve always wanted to better myself, no matter what training program or diet I tried,” he said, “and whilst playing a sport, my body couldn’t make any strength progress because of how sore or tired I was. After consideration, and reviews from friends who previously tried it, I decided, why not?”

 

You can come to your own conclusion about the root of the problem, but one thing’s for certain: the trend is only on the rise. Official statistics from the Crime Survey for England and Wales estimate that there are around 60,000 users in the UK, but these figures consist only of those who end up in police custody. And since the law surrounding steroids is pretty relaxed in comparison to other drugs (they’re illegal to sell, but they’re legal to buy, so long as they’re bought for personal consumption and not distribution), many of those who do find themselves in are often suppliers, rather than users. Consequently, because the law is structured to criminalise the few dealers rather than the many users, the scale of the problem is much larger than official statistics would indicate. Steroid expert Professor Julien Baker, from the University of the West of Scotland says, “there are needle exchanges in Cardiff and Glasgow which say they’ve seen a 600% increase for steroid users over 10 years. The real figure is definitely in the hundreds of thousands.”

 

***

It’s pretty clear that our steroid problem isn’t going away any time soon, so how can we control it? Because the current law attempts to avoid criminalising personal users, some critics believe the current system to be too weak, and have called for more severe penalties. But the general belief among users, the medical community, and most significantly among lawmakers, is that criminalising users will allow the root causes of the problem to go unaddressed, as well as creating new problems. This stance seems to run contrary to the punitive mentality that has so often undermined previous pieces of drug legislation in the UK, which is both refreshing and appropriate, considering that the evidence would suggest steroid use is far more of a social issue than a criminal one. Instead of harsher penalties, many have campaigned for greater awareness and education, a stance echoed by Crosland. He said, “I’m not anti-steroid, I’m not pro-steroid, I believe it’s a personal choice. But, what I am for is greater education, so that people can make informed decisions. I would look at a more comprehensive drug program within schools, and in general, a change in the way we approach drug use within this country across the board.” This sentiment is echoed by Nathan Coles, a natural bodybuilder and personal trainer, who has never used steroids. Coles believes, “Everybody has the right to do what they want with their own body. If someone was considering [using steroids], I’d probably just make sure they’re fully aware of the risks.”

There is hope that progress is being made in this regard, and that’s largely because steroids have moved so far into mainstream fitness culture, that the issue is being discussed more than ever before Some large gym chains have recognised that this is an issue that they can no longer ignore, and taken the positive step of putting needle-bins in their changing rooms. But Coles, who works for the national chain PureGym, believes that’s all gyms can do for their members. He says, “It’d be pretty hard to police. For a start, it’s not like steroids are a pre-workout that you have to take to the gym. No gym is going to blood test people, and they’re still paying for membership, so I imagine most gyms wouldn’t care.”

Whatever the reasons for the increase in steroid usage, whether you believe it’s due to media pressure, mass availability or sheer laziness, it’s become clear that this is a problem we can no longer ignore. Calls for better education are a start, and it’s encouraging to see that as steroid use has become more accepted, more and more information has been made available to both current and potential users to make them aware of the dangers. But ultimately, if we truly want to eradicate the shady online marketplaces and the underground labs where the quality of these products can be compromised, then there must be a conversation about legalisation and regulation in order to protect the health of users. The conversation regarding steroids – and indeed many other drugs – has too often been of eliminating their existence, and seeing anything other than the completion of that goal as a failure. It’s time for that attitude to change; rather than looking to kick our steroid habit, the focus must now be on managing and regulating it instead. Otherwise, users will continue to buy from questionable suppliers, health issues will continue to go unaddressed, and in rare, tragic cases, people will continue to die.

 

*Real name withheld.

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